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The Bureau of Land Management has put off plans to sell oil and gas leases around Alkali Ridge, Montezuma Canyon and other culturally rich areas in southeastern Utah.
The agency announced this week it was deferring leasing decisions on 36 of the 53 parcels on the block at its next quarterly auction, set for Feb. 17 in Salt Lake City, bowing to concerns raised by numerous conservation and preservation groups that the sale could harm archaeological resources.
Federal land managers also yanked nine "split estate" state trust land parcels where BLM owned the minerals.
"We hope this signals a willingness by the BLM to recognize that not every acre of BLM lands should be treated the same when it comes to energy development," said Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa. "In areas like Montezuma Canyon, where densities of cultural sites are high, special care needs to be taken to do things right and protect archaeological resources."
But the BLM's move angered industry representatives frustrated with a 13 million-acre stockpile of deferred leases around the West.
"This is a typical pattern at BLM these days," said Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance. "They defer so much for each lease sale. BLM overall is so afraid of controversy they just defer."
Sgamma notes that the amount of lease acreage being offered by BLM is down 77 percent since 2008.
"There is a reluctance to lease in [the Obama] administration," she said.
Sgmama's group unsuccessfully sued the BLM the last time it pulled leases at the 11th hour. In 2013, the agency was set to auction leases in and around the San Rafael Swell when a rock art group persuaded BLM state Director Juan Palma to withhold a decision because the parcels were rich in undocumented rock art sites.
The upcoming auction, which has been trimmed from 42,000 to 13,000 acres, targets lands the BLM manages in Grand and San Juan counties. The proposal drew even more pushback than the San Rafael leases.
The Utah Rock Art Research Association, National Parks Conservation Association, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and National Trust for Historic Preservation were among the groups to file protests.
Even the National Park Service weighed in, arguing rig lighting will degrade views of night skies near Hovenweep and Natural Bridges national monuments.
A big issue for historic preservationists is the lack of inventories of cultural resources hidden on the federal land. Critics including Ewing are concerned that BLM cannot craft drilling permits to protect archaeological sites if it does not know what and where they are.
A BLM spokeswoman said the lease deferrals arose from new information brought by the advocacy groups which prompted the agency to take a harder look before making a final decision.
At its May auction, BLM plans to sell leases to 23 parcels covering 25,874 acres administered by the Cedar City and Richfield field offices.
The agency noted that 3.8 million federal acres remain under lease in Utah, but industry representatives downplay that number's relevance.
"If we get the lease, we are so held up by the environmental review and permitting phase that we can't develop on leases we have," Sgamma said. "The whole system is being gummed up throughout the BLM."
BLM was not bowing just to preservationists, but also to the State Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, a Utah agency that ordinarily wants to see more federal leasing for oil and gas development. Several parcels at play were under a contiguous block of SITLA surface holdings in the Book Cliffs, which are being eyed for a land exchange under Rep. Rob Bishop's public land initiative.
Putting leases under them could derail potential exchanges, according to SITLA general counsel John Andrews.
"For whatever reason, when we got those parcels, BLM kept the minerals. The split estate creates a problem for us. With Rep. Bishop's public lands initiative, we are trying to sort out where we are in Uintah and Grand counties and [leasing] was another factor of complexity."